Barba, my 37-foot Jeanneau Sunfast, sailed north in January, covering 800 nautical miles of Norwegian coastline in the depths of winter. We endured -20 degrees Celsius temperatures at the worst and parted with the sun as we crossed the arctic circle. The purpose of our endeavor was spending time with the overwintering whales around Senja, the second largest island in Norway. A thousand or so orcas, humpback, as well as the occasional fin whale roam the waters feeding on herring. Although cold and miserable at times, in terms of experiencing nature, this Barba escapade proved to be a stroke of genius, at least in our crew’s mind.
With the exception of two days during which we were held back by weather, we had the same everyday routine for three weeks, sailing out of the port Hamn, on Senja, with wetsuits and camera gear ready down below. Once at sea, the only common denominator was that it was cold, and that we would end up seeing whales. Some times we had to go far from land, other times, they were close to shore. As the days passed, we got better at finding whales, as well as timing when to jump in. Occasionally we only found a handful of them, but we also had days with hundreds of orcas and dozens of humpbacks surrounding Barba.
A key element of our mission to document these majestic mammals was the work produced by award-winning professional underwater photographer Tony Wu. He has devoted his life to capturing images of whales, in the interest of generating public awareness for their preservation. Tony flew in from Japan for his first arctic-winter whale experience. He was told to post any complaints regarding lacking sun and bitter cold in the Barba complaint box, which is located over the side of the boat. On the second day of the journey, Tony got to spend an hour and a half up close with a pod of orcas feeding on herring. Back aboard, he recovered from his swim and the loss of sensation in his toes due to the cold with a big long-lasting smile. This was the first time he had been with orcas in the water. Numerous whale encounters would follow.
World champion kite surfer Kari Schibevaag was also onboard, realizing a long dream to swim with whales. During her first dip, she suddenly found herself in the midst of a dense school of herring, and realized that she could easily be engulfed by a humpback charging in. According to Tony, this posed a real threat, although in truth, a whale would not be able to swallow her, due to the size of its esophagus. Kari´s reaction as well as other highlights from the Barba whale encounter can be seen in this video.
Whales are good swimmers. They will outperform any diver or sailboat without any noticeable effort. The best opportunity to paddle among them is when they are feeding, in which case they are rather indifferent to you. Otherwise you can hang out with them when they are resting or transiting, in which case they occasionally will come up to the boat out of curiosity.
A sailboat is suitable for whale watching, as it’s a slow, non-intrusive way of hanging out with the friendly giants of the sea. But an expedition into arctic waters is not without its hurdles. We were able to keep the boat warm by continuously using the 4,000-watt diesel heater, but bundling up for each trip on deck required forethought. We suffered one engine failure (contaminated diesel), but were comfortably able to sail to sheltered waters to fix the problem. Still I always get nervous when I am on an engineless boat in unforgiving circumstances.
Overall, I’m happy to report that Barba’s January’s expedition was one unforgettable adventure. Numb hands and feet can thaw, and life in constant freezing conditions is all well worth it once you establish eye contact with a friendly looking 25-foot orca bull that’s nibbling to a herring it just killed with a flick of it’s tail.
Barba is hoping to sail north again for yet another ocean adventure when winter sets in later this year. We are, as always, looking for relevant crew who can help us tell this whale of a tale.